THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams‘ defense faced the same question weekly, on repeat: When would the unit put together a complete performance, from the start of the game to the finish?
That was 2018.
Welcome to 2019, when Aaron Donald & Co. have put together three dominant performances to spur the Rams to a 3-0 start for a second consecutive season.
“I feel like we’re doing great at times and, at times, a mistake here and there that we can’t have,” said Donald, the two-time defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “But we’re on the right track.”
The Rams’ defense underwent a slight offseason makeover from their 2018 Super Bowl unit.
Gone is All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom the Rams will face Sunday when he returns to Los Angeles with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox). They also moved on from veteran inside linebacker Mark Barron, who was released before free agency to save $6.33 million in salary cap. Veteran pass-rusher Clay Matthews and safety Eric Weddle were signed in free agency and safety Taylor Rapp was selected with a second-round pick from Washington.
The results? Improvement across the board.
The pass rush hit full speed in a Week 3 win over quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns, as Mayfield was on the run and unable to utilize his arsenal of playmakers downfield. The Rams’ run defense appears drastically improved despite facing all-purpose backs Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, and Nick Chubb in Week 3.
“We play great team defense,” said Weddle, who has taken over as the defensive signal-caller. “We’ve been harping on it since April. We play team defense. We play our roles.
“We’re trying to be the best in the league and anything short is unacceptable to us.”
The numbers prove they’re trending in the right direction.
The Rams’ pass rush win rate has improved from 51 percent in 2018 to 54 percent.
The effort has been led inside by Donald, who has absorbed a double team on 65 percent of his pass rushes, allowing for Matthews and Dante Fowler Jr. to get to the quarterback. Matthews has four sacks and Fowler has two.
“Those guys, they’re relentless,” safety John Johnson said. “They make our job a lot easier.”
The Rams have jumped from 19th to third in average yards allowed per game, improving from 358 yards to 285.
Against the run last season, they ranked dead last in yards allowed per carry at 5.07. This season, they’ve climbed 29 spots and have allowed only 4.66 yards per carry.
Passing yards allowed? The trend continues. Where they ranked 14th a season ago, they’ve jumped to fourth and have allowed an average of 192.
And the category most important, points allowed per game, also illustrates a stark improvement. In 2018, the Rams ranked 20th and allowed 24 points per game. Through three games this season, they rank seventh, and have allowed an average of 16.
“They’re playing well,” said quarterback Jared Goff, who has worked through three slow starts and has been unable to produce a first-half touchdown drive in two games. “It makes you feel good. Gives you confidence for sure while I’m sitting on the bench watching them.”
Despite holding the Browns to 13 points last Sunday, the defense needed to make a final stand to keep Cleveland from tying the game in the final 43 seconds.
It was reminiscent of several situations the defense found itself in last season, when it came down to making a final stop.
The Browns ran four plays from the Rams’ 4-yard line and came up scoreless, as Johnson intercepted his second pass of the season on fourth down, and the Rams won 20-13.
“You can’t say enough about the defense’s effort,” coach Sean McVay said. “It was really just a great job by them.”
However, Donald, who took down Mayfield for his first sack of the season, is convinced there’s room for improvement.
“Got to get better,” Donald said. “Got to keep working.”